I started my international adventure with my son, aged three, during a pandemic. It felt a little crazy but then my husband would join a week a later and all would be a bit easier, or so I thought.
However, owing to the pandemic, that week turned into five months. Yes, you read that right.
Working in a foreign country as a single caregiver with a toddler for months, with no end in sight, was a daunting prospect. But one thing it taught me – and hopefully can teach others who end up in anything approaching a similar situation – is the power of networking.
1. Start before you arrive
Ideally, start this before you get to your destination by going on the most popular app and making connections with everyone you can. Ask the school to provide you with contact details for staff in similar situations to yourself.
Don’t be shy! You need a stable environment for your child as soon as you arrive, so ask all relevant and informative questions, including childcare costs, family-friendly condos and nanny recommendations. Speak to as many people as possible.
2. Use Facebook
Following on from the above, consider friending everyone you have spoken to, this includes the person whose previous job you have filled. Facetime and speak to them – this is especially helpful if they have children, too, and can give tips and advice on things such as nannies and how to contact them.
Join the local Facebook groups and selling sites. As you arrive, many expats will be leaving; you can get good value second-hand furniture and toys. The community Facebook groups will also have local knowledge, such as crime rates, Covid hotspots, local pre-school reviews and things to do.
3. HR is your friend
Get to know the HR team – all of them, from the head of HR to any assistants – and, ideally, copy them into all urgent correspondence. By getting to know people in person, you become a known entity instead of a task on their to-do list.
When my husband's visa was turned down the second time, my school was excellent and supported us by booking an appointment at the local visa office to plead my case in person; the idea being you can’t turn someone down in person “with no reason given”. Turns out, you can though.
When this failed, the HR team networked with another school to see who had managed to get a visa approved, to find out why ours had failed. They then applied again. You must keep emailing and chasing up the visa progress, so you remain a priority.
4. Tell your manager about your issues
When my quarantine ended on the Friday, I was straight to work on the Monday.
To help out with childcare during this time, a local colleague offered me a short-term “nanny share” until my husband arrived. I stayed over several nights to settle my son into the new environment.
As such, I notified my line manager beforehand that, if there were any problems, I would be late for work.
My line manager understood and kindly excused me from an after school meeting so that I could get back earlier for my son during the first week.
This was very supportive of the school and made me feel valued. If you need a later start or to go home earlier while your child settles in, then be preemptive, arrange it beforehand so nothing is last minute or stressful and the school has time to arrange cover.
5. Ask for what you need
My idea was to use the school bus to drop off my son at his nanny share on my way to work, which is why my next step was to speak to my employer. Transport for the first term is usual in most contracts. Owing to the pandemic I would, unusually, be the only person on the bus.
I decided to speak directly to the principal about my idea, as my child’s welfare is best handled with a face-to-face conversation. The principal of the school and some senior leadership team members took new staff out for lunch. I was direct and stated that I needed help getting my son to his childcare while I waited for my husband to arrive, and politely asked, if it would be possible for the school bus to do a drop-off?
This is not a usual request and I know that it had to also be cleared by the board of governors. The principal was happy to assist in any way she could and assured me she would get the request approved. I had my written permission via email to use the bus for drop-off by Monday.
Overall, consider what will make your life easier and ask for it.
I was fortunate that the principal was accessible. If the principal doesn’t usually ask new staff to lunch/coffee, then take the initiative and contact them yourself.
Hopefully, most new starters in an international setting will not face the upheavals we did as a family – but the key is, whatever your situation, start networking early, reach out to all around you in the school environment – most people are more than happy to help in some way.
Kerrie Sarkar-Blake is a head of year and technology teacher at Sri KDU International School in Malaysia